Powder Store or Prison Cell? The Shore St Door

A group of 12 year olds on a school field trip waited in the grassy area at the corner of Portobello Rd.

One of the children pointed to a small cave at the foot of the cliff nearby. “That’s where they kept the Maori prisoners!” He declared to his fascinated audience.

It’s a persistent rumour, and one that half a life later, I decided to investigate.

UntitledFirst off, who exactly are the prisoners referred to in the rumour? The legend often associates them with Parihaka, but that’s not entirely correct. The prisoners linked with this cave are a group of 74 Pakakohe Maori who surrendered at the conclusion of Titokowaru’s War in Taranaki in 1869. They were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death, but their sentences were reduced to terms of imprisonment in Dunedin’s Gaol.

It was remarked upon their arrival that the group was mostly made up of elderly men and young boys. One, named Waiata, was so frail that he passed away soon after arriving at the gaol.

Members of the Parihaka resistance movement were imprisoned in Dunedin between 1879 and 1881, but they are not the prisoners we are concerned with here.

I approached the area from Bayfield Park, reaching Shore St just before it meets Portobello Rd. I walked towards the intersection, eyeing the cliff. Just as I thought I might have missed it, I spotted the heavy iron door.

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The grim portal

I waded through the tall grass and examined the rusted but still sturdy door, set directly in the cliff face and shut tight. Peeking through a hole, I could just make out a narrow passage that opened out into a wider room.

And that’s all most of us will ever see of  the interior.

Now to the matter that brought us here. What was the purpose of this chamber? Some argue that this is simply an innocent store room which held blasting powder for the construction of the causeway. But oral history insists the reality is more sinister.

I looked back through the newspaper archives for any mentions of the 1869 group of Maori prisoners. They arrived at Dunedin Gaol and are mentioned several times as being housed there. There was a boat arranged to take them to the site of the Anderson’s Bay road works every morning before they started work. So we can conclude from this that they were most certainly not officially kept in a cramped cave under a cliff.

Edward Ellison, of the Ngai Tahu runanga, is one who has received oral history regarding this matter through his family. His perspective is that the cave was used as a temporary holding cell during breaks or bad weather.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems clear that conditions must have been far from ideal, as 18 of the 74 died during their term of imprisonment. They had difficulty with the cold climate and I’d bet that hard labour wasn’t exactly great for the elderly members of the group.

I walked around the corner and paid my respects to the rongo rock, memorial to the those who died during their imprisonment in Dunedin. Nearby is a small cave at the base of the cliff, barred by a metal grate.

The dark tunnel
The dark hole under the cliff

Gazing into the darkness, I couldn’t see the end of the narrow tunnel. This is the cave that my schoolmate pointed out all those years ago, but strangely all the debate seems to surround the door around the corner without mentioning this cave at all. Do the two connect somewhere in the darkness under the hill? Are they related at all?

We may never be able to prove exactly what happened here 140 years ago, but the image the story left me with, of hapless prisoners crammed into a damp tiny cave, still haunts me.

So next time you visit Andersons Bay, spare a thought for those laboured on the road there.

Note: A previous version of the article claimed that the Pakakohe Maori built the Andersons Bay causeway, but this is incorrect.

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9 thoughts on “Powder Store or Prison Cell? The Shore St Door

  1. susan Nunn

    There are more of the caves if you walk past the end of the causeway and yacht club to just around the corner..So if true they the prisoners would not all be crammed in to the one cave

    1. Melissa

      Regardless of how many caves were used, this is not an ethical way to imprison human beings. Oral history from maori prisoners held here provides insight into a cruel and embarrasssing blemish on N.Z history. The least we can do is acknowledge the past as accurately as possible. I find your comment severly ignorant.

  2. Meg

    Nobody is pretending the Maori prisoners did not suffer and yes it is shameful that they were in Dunedin at all and imprisoned under any conditions. However multiple sources are needed to arrive at the truth. As Melissa says, accuracy is important. My mother Olive Trotter wrote a book about Dunedin’s first prison using newspapers of the day as a primary source. The people of Dunedin had a lot of sympathy for the Maori prisoners and used to throw tobacco over the prison walls to them. The authorities fined anyone caught doing that. However, they were issued with warm clothing – socks etc.

  3. This was just one of many examples of Colonial Tyranny carried by the Racist New Zealand Government of the day. It would take over 100 years longer before some sort of official Government recognition for the many wrongs of this period were finally admitted. It is perhaps timely that we spare a though for the North American Natives who are still being treated in a similarly distasteful manner today. Go to any of the “Standing Rock” Protest sites on this Media.
    While on the subject of ‘Healing the wounds perpetrated by the NZ Government’ take time to look at “Bastion Point, the untold story” available on You Tube. It is very very applicable to the current fiasco being played out in “The Land of the Free (If you are white) right now. https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/bastion-point—the-untold-story-1999

  4. A very timely reminder of out shameful colonial past.

  5. Sean Brosnahan

    Great to see that your post about the Shore Street door at Andersons Bay starts with a question “Powder Store or Prison Cell?” and remains open to various possibilities. The answer is almost certainly “neither”. I have been researching this matter for the past four years as part of my work as a curator at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. This is because the museum wants to develop a display that tells the story of the Taranaki prisoners (both the Pakakohe group in 1869-1872 and the Parihaka group in 1879-1881) and their experiences in Dunedin. We hope to do this in partnership with Taranaki iwi. The results of my research have therefore been shared with Taranaki, most recently on 12 April when the museum hosted a group of Pakakohe descendants on the latest hikoi to visit Dunedin.
    On that occasion I handed over a large file of primary documents drawn from contemporary newspapers and provincial and government archives that charted the Pakakohe prisoners in Dunedin from their arrival in November 1869 to their return north in 1872. There were hundreds of pages involved, provided a richly detailed account of where the prisoners worked, what they wore, what they ate, the costs of keeping them in prison in Dunedin and much else besides. This was a sequel to an earlier set of reports I have written, also delivered to Taranaki iwi, that covered other aspects of the Maori prisoners in Dunedin between 1869 and 1881. All of this material is available for viewing at the museum for anyone interested.
    The question of the Shore Street ‘cave’ has been one of the focus points of this research. And to summarise briefly what I have discovered, there is no contemporary evidence whatsoever to support the story of Maori prisoners being kept in a ‘cave’ at Andersons Bay. Moreover, my research strongly suggests that the structure behind the iron door in Shore Street did not even exist at the time the prisoners were in Dunedin and most likely dates to the early 20th century. Who built it, and for what purpose, I have not been able to determine but I can state with a high degree of confidence that it had nothing to do with Maori prisoners. So not a prison cell. And not a powder magazine either. My current working theory is that it may have been a cool store for milk from Peninsula farmers waiting to be picked up and delivered to processing plant in town. I can’t prove that but it makes more sense than the prison cell story.
    Let me outline a couple of reasons why the suggestion of Maori prisoners being kept at Andersons Bay doesn’t stack up against evidence contained in 19th-century records (quite apart from the ‘cave’ structure not existing in that period). The reasons advanced in the past for some sort of mini-gaol being developed at Shore Street has been that it was for shelter from bad weather while prisoners worked on the Andersons Bay causeway, or perhaps as an overnight shelter for prisoners to save the long walk back to the Dunedin gaol. In fact, when the engineer responsible for the causeway work set out the requirements for using prison labour on this job, he specifically requested [i] purchase of a boat to transport the prisoners to and from the worksite to the gaol across the harbour and [ii] the building of a wooden shelter structure for meals and wet weather shelter: “The procuring of a long boat to convey the prisoners to & from their work – and the furnishing of shed for shelter & cooking are all necessary to the prosecution and completion of this work”. Alex Cairns Inspector of Works to Secretary Land and Works, 28 March 1871. [OP 708, File 11653].
    Earlier he has specified the size of the shelter he had in mind erecting: “It is requisite that a shed be erected to enable the prisoners to partake of their meals as well as a protection in rainy weather a building 24×12 with one internal division will suit – The materials will cost £16.0 – the Labour required in erection will be provided by the Prison Depart.” [same file, 17 April 1871.] However, while the Provincial Government was prepared to shell out for the boat – and spent £40 to buy a suitable longboat from the immigrant ship “Christian McAusland” to convey the prisoners back and forth – Cairns’s requests for money for the shelter shed were declined. The Province was undergoing a major retrenchment at this time, even cutting the wages and salaries of all provincial workers and laying many off. Providing for the comfort of hard labour prisoners (and remember there were over twice as many pakeha criminals engaged in these hard labour works as the Maori prisoners of war) was simply not a priority.
    It might be argued that when the request for a shed was turned down, perhaps the prison labour gangs just excavated the ‘cave’ themselves instead (though it is less than half the size of the shed proposed by Alex Cairns and way too small to accommodate a 40-strong prison labour gang). There is no evidence to support this in the provincial records and the costs involved – the iron door for instance – make it very unlikely. Provincial officials had to go through bureaucratic hoops to get any expenditure approved and there are no such requests in the records that I can find. My earlier reports also examined the likelihood of prisoners being kept away from the gaol site overnight and concluded that this was extremely unlikely in the penal practices of Dunedin Gaol at that time and would definitely have been documented.
    There is one further piece of evidence that makes the excavation of the ‘cave’ in the cliff along Shore Street very unlikely in 1871-72 (when the causeway work was undertaken by prison labour gangs). That is the fact that the road line where the ‘cave’ is was laid along private land and permission to construct it had to be obtained from its owner, William Henry Cutten. He duly granted this permission in a letter dated 7 January 1871: “I have no objection to your making a road in front of my land between the Bayview Inn and Andersons Bay provided the road be made on the beach and not cut out of the land.” The proviso is critical to the ‘cave’ story, since it is definitely “cut out of the land” concerned. Cutten remained the owner of the land in question [Andersons Bay Bock III, Section 12] until his death in 1883, after which formal land swaps were approved bringing the Shore Street roadline officially into public ownership.
    So all in all, the ‘cave’ story doesn’t hold water as a place connected to Maori prisoners. It was probably built a couple of decades after the last of them had left Dunedin. If anyone has any solid evidence about its history, I would love to hear it. Having ruled out ‘prison cell’, and likewise ‘powder magazine’ (I did extensive research on this possibility too) – it would be great to know who built it, when, and for what purpose.

    1. amanda

      Wow Sean, thanks for your incredibly detailed and well-researched comment! I too would love to solve the mystery. It seems to be one of Dunedin’s most persistent rumours, and all the more so for being quite an emotional subject.

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